by Christine Parrish
Free Press news story
On Thursday, the legislative committee that oversees forestry officially rejected the Governor’s proposal to cut forest ranger positions, put control of Maine’s Public Lands under the Maine Forest Service and dramatically increase timber harvesting on Public Lands. Then they added some stiff legal language of their own before sending out their budget recommendations.
Three amendments added by the committee would make it difficult to reorganize the Maine Forest Ranger corps and the Bureau of Parks and Lands without legislative oversight, and make it impossible to increase timber harvesting on public lands without committee review.
The governor’s 2016-2017 budget proposed to cut 22 forest ranger jobs and strip the remaining rangers of law enforcement duties, while adding seven fully armed law enforcement officers in a new division within the department. It also proposed to bring management of Maine’s Public Lands under the control of the Maine Forest Service, which is headed by a former Plum Creek forestry executive, Doug Denico.
Denico has made it clear that he thinks Maine’s public lands are being mismanaged and wants to cut more timber from them, even though forestry experts said the science does not support dramatic increases in harvesting.
On April 1, in addition to heading up Maine Forest Service Denico took over as director of Public Lands, apparently circumventing the authority of the committee to weigh in on how public lands are managed, and eroding the autonomy of Public Lands, which currently acts as an autonomous agency, as mandated under the formation of the agency three decades ago. It is a self-funding division within the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
The committee voted to rein in the takeover, by firmly defining the role of Public Lands administration as separate from the Maine Forest Service and to legally establish their oversight control of timber harvesting on Public Lands.
At the conclusion of their budget work session on Wednesday, April 15, the committee approved attaching permanent legal changes to the budget, including:
• The Director of the Maine Forest Service must appoint a head ranger from the ranks of the Maine Forest Ranger corps, and set the minimum number of forest rangers for the state at 50 and the maximum number of rangers at 56, with specific job descriptions outlined in the amendment. All rangers would have law enforcement training that allows them to carry tasers, but not firearms. It expands ranger duties to include more monitoring of forest insects and disease, allows rangers to participate in disaster assistance and emergency search and rescue, and removes the current prohibition against the purchase of law enforcement equipment by the Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry. The committee separately voted to fund the appropriate training and law enforcement equipment.
• Clarified that the Director of Parks and Public Lands has the authority to administer all functions of Public Lands, with the unstated implication that the Maine Forest Service has no authority to step in. The committee vote was unanimous.
• Established a timber harvesting cap on Maine Public Lands of 141,500 cords per year, averaged over two years. The administration was planning to go up to 180,000 cords per year. The 141,500 cord cap was based on the most recent timber inventory and can be changed if an independent timber inventory shows it is warranted and if the committee reviews the proposed increase. Currently the Department is required to only inform the committee once a year that timber harvesting has increased.
Generally, the committee was in agreement both with taking out the governor’s proposed changes and adding in their own – some legislators because they were opposed to the reorganization, others because they thought the budget process did not allow enough time to fully explore the impacts.
The committee took 188 votes on the proposed 2016-2017 budget; of those, 148 were unanimous. Of the 40 that were not unanimous, only 2 items had more than one dissenting vote.
In all, 99 percent of the votes were either unanimous or had one dissenting vote. The dissenting vote belonged to Senator Peter Edgecomb, who represents half of Aroostook County, however, Edgecomb did not support cutting most of the jobs in the ranger corps.
None of this is expected to sit well with Governor LePage, who plans on getting access to the dollars generated by the increased timber harvests on Public Lands over the past several years and wants the timber harvests to continue to increase.
In March, LePage announced that he would not sign off on the bonds for the Land For Maine’s Future projects -which have already been approved by voters – unless he got full support for the continuation of the increased logging on Public Lands.
LePage announced in early February that he wanted to withdraw $5 million from the account to fund a home heating initiative. Attempts to get access to that statutorily protected money have failed in the past, but a bill to provide home heating subsidies that will tap into the Public Lands timber revenue account is expected this spring.